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John Holbo

Backlash Politics

by John Holbo on May 31, 2020

Will Trump be able to make white backlash politics work for him re: riots?

The situation sure suits his vicious temperament. “Unlimited use of the military” against US citizens. I’m sure that’s what his hard-core base wants to hear. But does the ‘silent majority’ – a.k.a. enough white people in suburbs – want to hear it? Will enough of them watch the news and think ‘holy shit, those people are out of control and we need law and order. Maybe that cop went too far but they arrested him. These riots show sometimes you gotta get rough.’ Or will more of them start to think, ‘a vicious culture of cop impunity, capped off by plainly unconstitutional qualified immunity and deliberate gutting of civil rights protections by right-wing judicial activists and the Trump administration have finally come to this.’ [click to continue…]


by John Holbo on May 28, 2020

OK, I’m really trying not to do the long Twitter thread thing. But let’s start from a tweet.

Rush Limbaugh is a moral monster, of course. ‘Demeritorous’ would be the word. But it’s interesting to think about the semantic fate of ‘moralizing’.

Limbaugh is using the term to mean ‘getting on your high horse’, ‘morally grandstanding’. Now: it is not true that, if someone is sitting on their moral high horse, that gives you a license to torture innocent 3rd parties, and cause them gratuitous pain, as Limbaugh supposes. But it is also interesting that this familiar, derogatory sense of ‘moralize’ isn’t even in the OED, although Google definitions catches it at the primary sense. [click to continue…]

Our Ontologies, Our Selves

by John Holbo on May 26, 2020

I need to establish better Twitter/Blog balance in my life. I switched over to Twitter because the kids know where it’s at. This Twitter joint is hopping and bopping. I do feel Twitter has been good for my writing style. That sounds strange. But I have these terrible, more or less Montaignean habits of starting in one place, arcing around, seemingly aimlessly, only to return to the one place. That’s not good, academic prose. And it doesn’t work on Twitter, so I’m forced to cut down. It has its literary charms, my loopy prose stye, but, late in life, I’ve decided I need to get better control over it. I should rule it, not it me! Yet long twitter threads, even if they are direct in their way, are such a mockery of literary form. Like serving a pint of beer in a long row of eyedroppers. So I’m swearing off the long stuff, on Twitter. So I’d better get back here to CT.

Right, to get back started in a traditional way, I’m going to complain about Rod Dreher, like it’s Old Home Week. (Just so you know I may be on Twitter now, but I haven’t changed.) It must seem strange I’m so fixated on Dreher, but, fact is, sometimes he looks to me like sort of my mirror universe opposite. Frequently he will report he’s reading authors I’ve read. We see the same things, just opposite-style. Today it’s Modris Eksteins. I read his Rites of Spring years ago and was really excited by it. Good book. Dreher likes it because he thinks it will help him shift the charge that he’s just too fussed about sex. [click to continue…]

I’ve been working through David Estlund’s new book, Utopophobia [google books]. His work has changed my thinking in a lot of ways, mostly because I don’t usually think like him. So, when I realized I thought he was right about some things, it kind of spun me round. But in this post I’m going to talk about something else – another topic I’ve been mulling for years and meaning to turn into a paper at some point. The place of whimsy in thought-experiments.

As you know, my flesh is weak, so I’m on Twitter now. Today I meant just to riff on one funny, absurdist-tinged example from Estlund. But he’s got so many and I couldn’t help myself. It’s Lewd-and-Prude all over again, just like in the old days when there were blogs.

The issue is this: whimsy is – well, it’s not an emotion, I don’t suppose. It’s an attitude. More exactly, it’s a mode or manner of being detached. But it’s not a full, nor neutral style of detachment. It’s not the view from nowhere. It’s not action-oriented. But that doesn’t make it pan-observant or unfeeling. It’s perpetually tickled; it’s preferentially attendant to certain things, as opposed to others. (It knows you can’t just tickle yourself. Something else has to do it.)

The concern is that this makes it stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. [click to continue…]

Ersatz Better Angels?

by John Holbo on December 4, 2019

Thanks for the good comments on yesterday’s post. Today, a brief follow-up. A discerning FB correspondent remarked I should have made the connection with my previous post – from way back in May! O, bad blogger am I – about my so-called ‘steelwool scrub’ fallacy.

These are both real, similar, they overlap, yet seem semi-distinct. Or perhaps the two ways of bringing it out just bring out different aspects of the same process. Hmmm. [click to continue…]

Vavilovian Philosophical Mimicry

by John Holbo on December 3, 2019

It’s been months since I posted! I’ve migrated to twitter. (The flesh is weak – but feel free to follow me!)

I’m going to try to start doing the sane thing. Long posts at CT, like God’s infinite mind intended. Short thoughts on Twitter, like humanity’s mayfly attention span tolerates.

Today I propose a new term in political theory. Vavilovian philosophical mimicry! [click to continue…]

The Steelwool Scrub – A Fallacy

by John Holbo on May 7, 2019

This case is picture-perfect for making a simple point in debates about religious liberty: ‘sincere religious belief’ is not a ‘get out of bigotry free’ card. It is no carte blanche defense (legal or moral).

The man is nothing if not religiously sincere. Anyone who wasn’t would have kept his mouth shut, not blurted the following: [click to continue…]

Notes on Peterson, Shapiro, Facts, Feelings

by John Holbo on March 10, 2019

I teach Plato’s Meno. I emphasize that, despite it being a hard dialogue, Meno, the guy, isn’t hard to size up. ‘Virtue’ is success. Meno is a get-ahead guy. Are some guys born with it, do you get it by practice, is there intellectual secret sauce? I talk to my students about self-help books. What good, do you think, can a book like How To Win Friends and Influence People do you?

You can read my commentary chapter on Meno here. There’s quite a bit of self-help stuff in it. (You can always buy my book on Amazon! [Associates link.])

Since this is my angle, I should keep up with the self-help scene, shouldn’t I? But, I confess, I didn’t keep tabs on the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson. At first, when I heard folks complaining, I thought: stern Canadian Jungian? Sweet Tiamat in Toronto, sounds Abzulutely fabulous! Like the premise for a Guy Madden film.

Recently I tried to find time to familiarize myself better. Let me share with you a bit from one exchange that struck me as especially … well, yes, funny. It’s from a 2-hour episode of the Rubin Report, from November 30, 2018. It’s Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin talking “religion, trans activism, censorship, the IDW and more.” (Hey. I study the metaphysics of self-help literature. I gotta dance with the one what brung me.)

Round about minute 52 it runs sort of like this. (Very rough transcript, not word-for-word. but I’ve tried to be fair, not omitting anything that changes the sense. You can check it against audio. If I have made transcription errors or left out any detail that changes the sense, I will correct.) [click to continue…]

I thought it was hilarious.

The Uses and Disadvantages of Historovox For Life

by John Holbo on March 2, 2019

Corey caught flack for his “Historovox” piece. I have since been intermittently failing to write a useful response. Maybe this one will go better.

There are two thoughts behind the piece.

1) Trump is weak.

2) ‘Historovox’ affords a distorted view.

The connection – the thesis – is that,

3) Because 2, many have been slow to see 1.

If 1 and 2 are true, this is plausible. But 1 and 2 are such distinct thoughts that the link – even if it holds – doesn’t hold the piece together. There are too many angles of pushback and complication. Dealing with 1 and 2 together is too hard. To put it another way: Corey’s piece is framed kind of like a proof of 2, via 1. But since you need 3 for the proof, and 2 for 3, it’s kind of circular. Or is it? In fact it needn’t be viciously so. You know what? I suggest we pocket 3 as interesting, but hard to gauge. Think about 1 and 2 separately. In this post I will talk about just 2. [click to continue…]

Wit’s End

by John Holbo on February 18, 2019

I’m reading two books called Wit’s End at the same time, which deserves a prize, or I am committing Yvor Winter’s Imitative Fallacy. The first is witzend [amazon associates link]. The second is Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It[amazon], by James Geary. [click to continue…]

Jacques Callot, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

by John Holbo on February 11, 2019

I’m done with Art Young, but I had an afterthought. My final quote from Young mentioned earlier imaginative greats – like Jacques Callot. In my experience, everyone knows about Hieronymous Bosch but, oddly, fewer are familiar with Callot. So I uploaded one of his more impressive pieces to Flickr (I just snagged it from Wikimedia). I can’t say it’s Seussian, exactly. But it’s pretty great old stuff. From 1635.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jacques Callot

Politics and Forgiveness – a Proposal

by John Holbo on February 9, 2019

Governor Ralph Northam is fighting to stay, so he says, because the alternative is being unfairly tarred for life as a racist. (Sorry, I can’t find the quote. Correct me if I’m wrong. But somewhere in this blizzard of articles on the controversy he has said something to that effect. He is obviously thinking it.) This is so backwards. The correct solution is he should leave and, on the way out the door, he gets sympathy for his political misfortune and … yes, forgiveness and absolution. Go, and sin no more. But go.

He needs to leave, not because of what is or isn’t in his heart – or was or wasn’t in his heart – but because his continued presence makes it impossible for Democrats to take a strong, consistent, stand against racism. If any Democrat knows that, by staying in office, they hinder – rather than helping – he or she should step back for the good of the party, on behalf of the values it stands for. That said, there is no reason on earth to doubt that Northam is a different man from the one in that picture. Morally. It’s common sense – not just common courtesy – to believe he’s changed and would not do that today because he knows better. (That guy in the picture was a Gillespie voter, for sure.) [click to continue…]

Today I conclude my reflections on Art Young, occasioned by the great new book about him [amazon associates link]. For those disinclined to purchase, I found a copy of one of his books, On My Way (1928), in free PDF form. (Doc announces itself as legal. No copyright renewal, so it seems.) Anyway, in honor of my earlier, literary maps post: say! the endpapers make a swell map!

But the Art path I shall trace in this post is not from Monroe, WI, to Bethel, Conn. A few years back I published a survey article on ‘caricature and comics‘. On the one hand, caricature is a minor art form – not necessarily low but distinctly niche. Funny line drawings of celebrities. On the other hand, formally, caricature is very old and very broad. This produces categorial dissonance. Caricature techniques are at the root of styles we don’t think of as caricature. This is the main thesis of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, by the by. (No one seems to have noticed, but it’s true.)

In that essay I make some points with reference to the case of caricaturist-turned-Expressionist, Lyonel Feininger, but I could have used Art Young.

But let me start at the beginning, regarding Young. I like reading stories of youthful artistic influence, so here is his, pieced together from the new book and other sources. [click to continue…]

Art Young and Dr. Seuss

by John Holbo on January 28, 2019

I don’t have time for a full appreciation of Art Young today, but I’ll re-recommend the new Fantagraphics book about him [amazon associates link] and advance one art historical thesis: Young was a significant influence on the style of Dr. Seuss. I have never seen this point made before. I didn’t realize it myself until a week ago. As an avid, amateur Seussologist, and student of lines of graphic influence in American cartoon art in the early 20th Century, I’m interested to see it. [click to continue…]